Alcohol is often strongly tied to local identity. Champagne must come from France (everywhere else merely makes sparkling wine). Speight’s is the beer of the New Zealand “Southern Man.” Vodka equals Russia (or, some might argue, Poland). The widespread knowledge of these and other discourses reflects a specialized de facto nationalism, based on material consumption. Bourbon whiskey is no exception, intrinsically tied to the United States — particularly to the American South.
Though there are many bourbons to choose from, the bestselling bourbon within the U.S. (according to its official website) is Wild Turkey, known by its fans as “Old Rotgut” or “The Kickin’ Chicken” and commonly associated with the hard-edged American Southern White Male, who is discursively defined as some version of a cowboy — but perhaps with a pickup truck in lieu of a horse. This advertisement for Wild Turkey uses the discursive construction of the Southern White American Male identity to market their whiskey. Due to the deep-set emotions surrounding that identity, this ad does not (and cannot) merely promote whiskey, but also reinforces longstanding stereotypes about the largely imagined community of the American South, exploiting a kind of Reverse-Orientalism (which is already in existence) to create an essentially indigenous media which promotes a sense of fierce nationalism. Put simply, this Wild Turkey commercial is not just advertising bourbon — it’s advertising an identity.
The sign at Frog Lake says Please Don't Step on the Frog. I spend all day looking for the frog underneath the reeds, between the cattails at the edge of the water. I feel like I am constantly stepping on the frog, but I'm not. I don't think there is a frog, at least not anymore. — Zachary Schomburg 'Dont Step on the Frog'
Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills highlights the tenuous connection between signifier and signified through its use of still images as representations of singles frames from films1 that don’t actually exist. In one manner of engagement with these images, the viewer gazes into a void. Whereas a still from a real film would have (at least the potential of) the context of the previous and subsequent frames that would make up the scene, and that scene would have the context of the previous and subsequent scenes that would make up the film, Sherman’s photographs — though ostensibly (at least in certain examples) stills taken from reels of moving images — stand undeniably alone. They invoke the air and feeling of particular styles of film (particularly film noir) but their forcing to center stage of the inability of the viewer to grasp the context of who is in the photograph, what they have done, what they are doing, and what they will do suggests that a transference of a particular type of representation out of one type of media and into another will inevitably fail (on some level or at some point) to maintain a connection between signifier and signified.
Sherman’s photographs are the easy part in understanding this process. Obviously, since no actual film corresponds to any of these images and the subject is merely Sherman in varying costumes and settings, any attempt to assign them context in the medium that the conceit of the series’s title suggests they come from is moot. Here, we only see a moment of the story — whatever it is. There is no IMDb page, because Sherman produced only photographs, not films. And even if there were an informative page à la IMDb, looking up the actors, costume designers, director, photographer, producer, or writer would provide little help either, since every credit goes to Sherman herself. The real discovery comes from considering how Sherman’s use of herself as subject and media and cultural clichés2 as source material breaks down the relationship between still and moving image.
By rendering these images as signifiers with no signified, Sherman suggests that the relationship between a single frame taken from a real film and the reel it is taken from is far more complex than is immediately evident. Does the screencap, so commonly used by film critics both professional and novice, really tell us much, if anything at all? Perhaps, but it depends. From one point of view, one could argue that a well-picked screencap can encompass a great deal of the meaning (or, for the more realistic and less romantically-inclined, the key components, themes, and/or motifs) of a film. From another, one could argue that any single still image from any film could never hope to tell us the first thing about the complexity of a medium whose images move.3
Since the element of nostalgia figures so prominently in Sherman’s series, this phenomenon is most evident in the photographs that suggest influence by the cinema of the past (which in many ways, for late 1970s America, was never to return), such as film noir and surrealism, rather than those photos reminiscent of gossip rags4 or obviously posed publicity stills.5
Ah, Rear Window. Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece is considered a nearly flawless film from the powerhouse of Classic Hollywood, and for damn good reason. It’s just a good film. Funny, interesting on many levels, enticing, full of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart — there’s certainly something for everyone. Many a shot-by-shot comparison has been done on this film, as many a connection to the implications it makes about the nature of voyeurism — and its (dis)merits — has been made, so I will spare you, dear reader, of simply regurgitating what everyone has already said to and heard parroted back from everyone they know. However, since that’s kind of the overarching point of the film, I can’t promise it will have no bearing on what I would like to say. But I will try not to make the same old same old the centerpiece of this cinematic feast.
So. As you may have guessed, I chose to complete the Jimmy Stewart series I inadvertently started with Rope and continued with The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. Though I did not initially know that I would make any real connections besides “I think Stewart and Hitchcock worked well together and made awesome movies,” I think I actually did. In a way that I think is much more overt than when Hitchcock works with, say, Cary Grant, I think that the films the iconic director made with Stewart revolve very much around rituals, and the power they have to reveal certain truths or bring people together.
Whether the quasi-communion ritual of the eating and drinking around an alter in Rope, the power of music and the way it brings people together in The Man Who Knew Too Much, or the rabid search for deeper personal identity through skin-deep looks in Vertigo, rituals seem to drive the meaning of Hitchcock’s Stewart-laden oeuvre. And Rear Window is no different — in fact, it quite possibly may take the cake, becoming purely about the ritual of watching a man (and an entire neighborhood) through a window and endlessly theorizing about what his actions could possibly mean, in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek revelation of how some people take theorizing about things they see too far.
The script for this ad, which aired during the 2009 NBA All Stars Event, is simple. In fact, one might boil it down to one line: “He can do whatever he wants.” With that single line, this ad for Jim Beam bourbon whiskey reveals its modus operandi — the exclusive empowerment of the Western heterosexual male through a deft combination of what Stuart Hall, in his essay ‘The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity,’ called “powerful, dominant, highly masculinist, old Ford imagery” with “the new exotica.”1 Though the advertisement centers around a foreign female, its makers ensure that she is not represented as too exotic, which serves a dual purpose. First, to fix her within the old Fordist cultural identity of the dutiful girlfriend (or wife) who patiently awaits her man — whether he’s weary from a long day at the office or the strip club. Second, to bring the local and the global together through the reduction of her foreign identity to something digestible for the Western heterosexual male.
Originally published in The Oberlin Review
on September 7, 2011
The Help, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, delivers an exhausting experience. The film is occasionally touching, sometimes hilarious, often uncomfortable, and always problematic. The Help’s casual marginalization of black women in the name of sugarcoating the Jim Crow era is truly atrocious. Imagine if Atticus Finch had taken Tom Robinson’s case to impress a New York law firm and/or embarrass a town rival, miraculously won (historical accuracy be damned), and then promptly left the people that needed him.
Set in early-1960s Jackson, Mississippi, The Help begins with Skeeter, our white hero, returning home after graduation from Ole Miss with dreams of writing in New York City. Spurred on by curiosity about the mysterious disappearance of her childhood maid and contempt for her truly unthinkable frenemy Hilly, Skeeter decides to write a book about the trials and tribulations of The Help. Of course, her initial motivation is to nab the job in New York — if her big idea impresses the sophisticated (yet still pretty racist) editor, Skeeter gets to leave Mississippi for good.
With Vertigo (1958), we once again have Jimmy Stewart in a Hitchcock thriller, in what I consider, in some ways, a natural continuation of Hitchcock’s exploration of guilt in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), with the added layer of the way the human mind processes its fears and desires — and the interesting implication that it actually spends most of its time fearing those desires and feeling guilty about it.
However similar in basic themes, Vertigo proves from the outset that it is a strikingly different film from The Man Who Knew Too Much. The very first scene is of Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) dangling over the edge of a rooftop, struggling to save a police officer, who falls to his tragic, harrowing death. This sequence sets up right away what Scottie has to fear and feel guilty about, unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much, which actually begins as a seemingly fluffy married-couple romantic-comedy or some silliness like that. Then, of course, the elaborate plot to assassinate the dignitary slowly dawns upon the intrepid Mr. Stewart and Ms. Day as our heroes kind of blunder their way through the film.
Not so with Vertigo. Taking elements from the thrillers, murder mysteries, and film noir, this film (one of Hitchcock’s most cited and iconic) centers squarely around the actions of Scottie (Mr. Stewart). Our hero drives the plot forward, putting his own damaged noggin to work trying to understand just what happened to Carlotta Valdes, and what is currently going on inside the mind of Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton. The trouble is that nothing is nearly as morally cut-and-dried as in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Character motivations are hazy, not just for the seemingly charming but ultimately manipulative Mr. Gavin Elster, but also for Scottie himself.
In the pages of the Cahiers du Cinèma, it is easy to see that the New Wave directors revered and loved Hitchcock, declaring him inexorably an auteur.
In The Man Who Knew Too Much, a 1956 remake of his own film produced twenty years prior, Hitchcock certainly exhibits those qualities that Godard, Truffaut, and other Cahiers contributors considered the marks of an auteur — an involvement in his own story, an attention to both technical and textual details, and the inclusion of certain themes and motifs which are found throughout the director’s oeuvre. What’s intriguing, however, is the degree to which The Man Who Knew Too Much is stylistically different from these directors’ early works, which can perhaps shed some light on the mechanics of the politique des auteurs while bringing out some of the finer points of the film itself.
François Truffaut’s “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” angrily inaugurates the politique des auteurs with nothing short of fire and brimstone. Though the not-quite-yet-a-director’s fiery words indict several scenarists’ overly literary treatment of the cinema, he does not really offer a concrete way that they should have made films (beyond that good films need good mise-en-scène). Rather, his piece lines up with Peter Wollen’s later writings on the politique des auteurs, which cede that the requirements of what makes an auteur are subjective and intangible. Though the auteur theory is a notoriously flawed aspect of film criticism, Hitchcock, through his inventive and daring – yet in many ways also consistent and vigilant – use of film to widen the scope of storytelling qualifies as one of Truffaut’s auteurs, his “[men] of the cinema.”